At moments of sorrow, despair and exhaustion, it is only too easy to look back over the years and feel that our lives have, in essence, been meaningless. We take stock of just how much has gone wrong: how many errors there have been; how many unfulfilled plans and frustrated dreams we’ve had. No one can avoid the disappointments that life dishes out from time to time, and keeping ourselves from brooding over it all can seem like the greatest task ever. The question is whether it must also, ultimately, signify nothing. This will depend especially on who is telling it. In the hands of a pessimist, the story of a life may well turn into meaningless and disheartening jargon. But with sufficient compassion and insight, we may equally be able to make something different and a great deal more meaningful and redemptive out of the same material.
The difference between despair and hope is just a different way of telling stories from the same set of facts. Only a small number of us ever self-consciously write our autobiographies. It is a task, according to popular belief, we associate with celebrities and the very old and successful – but it is, in the background, a universal activity. We may not be publishing our stories and it may not end up as a New York Times Bestseller, but we are writing them in our minds nevertheless. Every day finds us weaving a story about who we are, where we are going and why events happened as they did.
Many of us are strikingly harsh narrators of these life stories. We hint to ourselves that we’ve been morons from the beginning. It’s been one disaster after another. That’s how we go about narrating, especially late at night, when our stockpile of optimism run dry and the demons return.
Yet our self-condemning form of narrative is hardly necessary. There could always be ways of telling very different, far kinder, and more balanced stories from the very same sets of facts. Who would you nominate to write or tell your life story if you were asked to? I know who I would nominate, Jesus, because I know that with Him I am sure to come out with a bearable, moving, tender and noble story. I wonder who you would if you had to choose.
Good narrators know that lives can be meaningful even when they might involve a lot of failure and humiliation. Mistakes are not dead-ends, they are sources of information that can be exploited and put to work as guides to more effective subsequent actions. Not all the disasters were wasted anyway. Maybe we spent a decade not quite knowing what we wanted to do with ourselves professionally. Maybe we went through a succession of failed relationships that left us confused and hurt a lot of people. But these experiences weren’t meaningless because they were necessary to later development and maturity. We needed the career crisis to understand our working identities; we had to fail at love to understand our hearts. No one gets anywhere important in one go. We can forgive ourselves the horrors of our first trial.
The good storyteller recognises too – contrary to certain impressions – that there will always be a number of players responsible for negative events in a person’s life. We are never the sole authors of either our triumphs or of our defeats. It would be highly prideful of us to take all the blame or assume all the credit. Sometimes, it really will be the fault of something or somebody else. We should not take the entire burden of life’s difficulties on our own shoulders.
Perhaps at our death beds, we will inevitably think about how much in our life stories didn’t work out, the dreams that didn’t come to pass and loves that were rejected, friendships that could never be repaired, and catastrophes and hurts we never overcame. But as good story tellers, we will also know that there were threads of intense value that sustained us, that there was a higher calling we sometimes followed, that despite the agonies, our lives were not mere sound and fury; that in our own way, at select moments at least, our stories made sense.
Every day, we are induced to narrate a bit of our life story to ourselves: we explain why there was pain, why we forgot to seize a chance and why we’re in an unhappy situation.
It does not need to be a tale told by a nobody who means and counts for nothing. It can be a tale told by a kind, intelligent soul signifying rather a lot: like almost every life story, it is in truth a story of a well-intentioned, flawed, partially blind, self-deceived but ultimately dignified and good human struggling against enormous odds and, sometimes, on a good day, succeeding just a little in a few areas.